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Istanbul Jazz: So Close to the Music, So Far From New York

Arthur R George By

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Jazz Semai featured songs composed by pianist and saxophonist Ötenel, accompanied by drummer Erol Pekcan and bassist Kudret Öztoprak. It is recognized as the first jazz album recorded in Turkey. It has a post-bop, mainstream purity, and it swings. Long out of print, the album was reissued in 2016 on vinyl to renewed acclaim.

Semai is a type of folkloric singing associated with Anatolia in Turkey; the title suggests the Turkish influences brought to the album. Tutuğ explains that Jazz Semai was a demarcation point. It brought forth Turkish elements in harmony, melody, and rhythm, but was different from others who played the odd meter and sounds of country melodies and called it jazz. It is considered foundational to Turkish jazz due to Ötenel's exhibited mastery of jazz vocabulary, supported by Pekcan's crisp western style drumming.

Ötenel, revered by Can Tutuğ and Eda And, is recalled by one of his students, pianist and composer Yiğit Özatalay, to have scolded "Your playing isn't copying anyone else, that's really bad!" Özatalay at first could not understand what Ötenel meant. "But later on I understood that learning starts with imitation and that jazz isn't a genre that could be learned from books. He would always say 'Listen to the oldies' and would add 'Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Wynton Kelly... and of course Bill Evans.'"

Out of Hotel Lobbies

Onder Focan recalls a period as recent as the mid-1990s when Turkish jazz musicians were dismissed as players suitable only for hotel lobbies. Turks were said to have spent many years trying to play western jazz as good as the westerner, according to Özlem Köseoğlu, a writer for Jazz Dergisi, a Turkish jazz publication. Now, she said, Turkey is generating its own original work, but, apart from individual efforts, it is a country not yet in demand within the European tour route. Local support, she said, is very much needed.

Turkey always carries the sense of being "other," never easily categorized, confusing even. It is neither conventionally "European" nor wholly "Asian/Middle Eastern." At a seminar sponsored by İKSV on the process of international booking, a programmer for a major European club acknowledged the difficulty for a Turkish musician to break out, although individual acts do filter through.

Many Turkish musicians have trained in the West, and have toured extensively. A few have obtained international prominence: Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, Grammy-nominated and on the faculty of Berklee College of Music in Boston; fusion pianist Aydin Esen; Okay Temiz with Don Cherry and Oriental Wind; Gülşah Erol with Abstra has worked with European free jazz patriarch Peter Brötzmann. But the programmer found no major vogue emerging from Turkey as, for example, music from Cuba or Africa, into which an individual musician or group might be swept. Audiences follow trends, he said, more than genres.

Even when the music is noteworthy, the programmer, speaking openly but not for attribution, must ask himself whether it stands out from what he already has in his own country or elsewhere. Ironically, even when a Turkish band earns exposure in Europe, that may disqualify it from yet other bookings and kill the development of a trend. The earlier bookings may render an act no longer sufficiently "new" for promoters always seeking something different from their peers and competitors.

He acknowledged that talent is growing exponentially, especially in Istanbul. Internet exposure makes publicity easier, but also more difficult because of the flood of voices. The jazz tradition is one of collaboration, he said, suggesting that musicians build themselves locally, working their email list hard to build an extended community and groundswell in their home country. "If you can't consistently fill a 200-seat room in Istanbul, a city of 15 million people, how can you think that Europe is waiting to hear you?," he frankly asked.

The Journey From Home

One organization in England, Turquazz, seized its own opportunity, creating a festival in London last March with Turkish musicians, at which Onder Focan performed. Across a year, Nardis stages all interpretations of jazz including classic, modern, fusion, mainstream and ethnic. Fridays and Saturdays feature bands with vocalists, midweek are instrumental ensembles, Mondays and Tuesdays are for trios, emerging artists, and non-mainstream projects. Nardis has also hosted such Americans as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Jeremy Pelt, Eric Alexander, Roberta Gambarini.

Cemiyet often features home-grown talent supported by enthusiastic followers. Salon İKSV is always active, often pushing outward with progressive, fusion, electronica, dance or trance beats, but on selective other dates the music is more subtle. This summer Tolgahan Cogulu brought his microtonal movable-frets guitar invention. The group Toz, the Turkish word for essence or archetype, reminded at times of Eric Dolphy's "Out to Lunch," some Ornette Coleman, moderated by an icy northern sound from pianist Ercument Orkut who had spent some time in Estonia. Cultural exchange happens: Laura Misch from London brings layers and loops of voice and saxophone October 3; that cosmic jazz has a tradition becomes clear when American Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids visit October 10; Mario Batkovic, a Swiss accordionist born in Bosnia, ranges from moody and meditative to majestic, October 11-12; Hania Rani, from Warsaw by way of Berlin and Reykjavik, Iceland, jazz/ "neo-classical" solo piano, December 6.

During the day The Badau in Kadıköy is a coffeehouse, with jazz standards on the sound system. Dinner, with Turkish fruit and herbal seasonings, is available at 6.30 p.m. with a limitation of 12 people; concerts begin at 9 p.m. with only 30 seats. Players accustomed to working with each other combine in varied iterations nightly, and turn up in the other venues across the city as well.

Can Tutuğ's YouTube videos offer familiar standards: "Bag's Groove," "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise," "Night in Tunisia," "Satin Doll," "Monk's Blues," "I Mean You," "You Don't Know What Love Is." But then, "JuJu" by Wayne Shorter, and a tribute to the late Japanese freeform guitarist Masayoki Takayanagi, yet the playing stays within the bounds of comprehension even as parts go "outside."

In an outdoor festival medley of "All Blues" by Miles Davis and "Cantaloupe Island" by Herbie Hancock, frequent collaborator Eren Akgün took the horn line on trombone, a companion tone which Tutuğ favors. A tuba provided the bass line, solidly within the tradition, New Orleans Second Line, but innovative in present time. The tuba player, Çağlar Ali Gürsoy, from the Turkish army band, joined at the last minute to replace the missing bassist. The audience, of just plain folks from across generations and backgrounds, grooved.

Tutuğ's Instagram links lead to a community of acoustic jazz players, many working The Badau and also turning up over in Nardis, like drummer Burak Cihangirli, who backed Eda And. One of Tutuğ's posts shows the McCoy Tyner Blue Note album The Real McCoy lying across the plates of his vibraphone, indicative of the legacy he follows. The threads come together when Tutuğ, Cihangirli, and Onder Focan play Nardis on November 9.

Tutuğ backed into jazz performance. He first became engaged with jazz listening to [[m: Cannonball Adderley}} and John Coltrane on the 1959 album The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago. What he heard in the trading roles between Cannonball and Coltrane, "that incredible and endless state of music," engaged him. Then he encountered Milt Jackson's "bluesy walk," the energy of Ornette Coleman, "Eric Dolphy's flame, Albert Ayler's passion."

"I was very impressed as I listened. I got curious about how music was shaped like this and I started to question: What do these musicians do, how do they achieve that, what is this miracle?" Tutuğ started with saxophone but recalls he did not put in the practice time necessary as a young player, and then set the instrument aside as he committed to medical studies. He became curious about vibraphone, and as his academic schedule relaxed, he bought one and became committed to it.

Just Once, Then More

As Tutuğ got deeper into the vibes, he formed a quartet, with a simple goal: just once to perform in a public concert in a smaller city, Edirne, to check off a bucket list item that "we will be satisfied all our lives because we have done this. We thought we would tell our children about it.

"Then, the demand for these concerts in Edirne increased and we said we should continue doing this for a little longer. Following some positive progress in our career as a band in 2015, we heard about a competition called Young Jazz competition of the 22nd International Istanbul Jazz Festival. We thought we should enter as well. We thought we would try our luck, and if it doesn't work out, we will be eliminated and go back home. Then we won."

Over time, he has shaped his life according to jazz. He followed Milt Jackson transcriptions, has transcribed most recorded solos of Bobby Hutcherson, played more than 100 concerts of Monk. He too has chosen to refrain from electronics, preferring that acoustic instruments are tactile. He hears wind instruments' accompaniments as shades of "red," "hot," and "seductive," soulful.

Can Tutuğ contents himself that jazz is a journey, not necessarily one that will lead to stardom, and one that requires work. "It is an endless path. It is a path on which you think you approach the horizon, only to realize it is farther ahead—a path that will never end and make you realize you are such a small speck on it. At least that is my description of it. This is what jazz is in its entirety for me. Not the limelight, not African-American musicians, or shiny instruments. It is an endless path for me."

Istanbul is a station on the journey.
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